The Fixed Stars: Thirty-Seven Emblems for the Perilous Season, by Brian Conn. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: FC2. 312 pages. $19.95, paper.
I was not allowed a lamp. This was to keep me from writing at night. But marking words on a page would not have been possible anyway. Everything had been taken from me—my books, paper, pens—all had to be left in a facility on the way to the prison. Worst for me was that they took my glasses. Clever of them, letting the limits of my vision hem me in. Anything I try to see closely now is obscured by the mists my own eyes manufacture. It’s a principle in certain arts of defense that you let your attacker’s weaknesses protect you. So it is for me: I am being undone by what I cannot see. I’m no attacker, though—I have never been more than a nobody.
They called it a facility but it was hardly an outpost, the people there hardly human. They were more like lint. They had accumulated in that gray interior as a result of a process they couldn’t begin to understand or examine. Each wore a silver eye that glinted at me. They took my photo, put my name below it, then a stamp to show I had been processed. Keep this with you, they said, handing me my processed image. It permitted me to be a prisoner of Camp Chad for the next seven hundred thirty days. I resented that my prison had such a stupid name. I wanted something more marvelous to contain me, like Schloss Solitude. But they knew perfectly well what they were doing—giving something an ugly name is another way of marring it and all those who have to use it.
Some sort of animal, maybe a cat, leaped onto the desk as I left. I saw the vague shape of it nuzzle the head of the man with the stamp. He pursed and smacked his lips, cooed, ran a hand the length of the animal’s body. Was this the man who had condemned me? The world had been drained of decency. Outside a gray piss was falling. Everything public was smeared with it. Everything was public now. I was loaded onto the back of a truck carrying three cows. All the way to Camp Chad they chewed and shat.
When a person is separated from her life, unexpected memories become gravely important. These memories are the private non sequiturs of identity—they form the core of one’s self and have no obvious relation to anything beyond themselves.
After my glasses were confiscated, the love of shadows I felt as a child returned to me, having become primally significant. I remembered how I would examine the shadows in my bedroom while I laid in bed reading—when I would look up from the page, my eyes, since I wasn’t wearing my glasses, became deft at disorienting me. With the attention I had just been giving to the words on the pages of the novels I would read for hours, I took care to notice the shadows’ nuances—each one’s shape depended on its position in relation to the window, whether the curtain was open or closed, whether the light coming in was direct or indirect. The brighter the light, the darker would be the shadows in the corners and along the seam between wall and ceiling. That seam often appeared to be a great distance from me, as if it were the horizon above a sea, and I imagined all sorts of adventures I would have on my journey toward it.
Shadows and the quiet movements of their gray bodies seemed very friendly to me. They would never try to hurt me. Sometimes when my mother would come in from being outside, there would be snow on her shoulders, melting down through her hair, and little flakes would be clinging to her eyelashes. She would let me try to pluck them off, though they always melted before I could grasp them. I loved the snow that clung to my mother—it let me see the warmth of her features and gave me some news of conditions outdoors. Likewise the shadows: I loved them because they showed me the various shapes of my bedroom and reminded me of its light.
I began looking for shadows in my books. They had become the most important element in my reality. They structured it, and I wanted to find a novel that treated them the way most novels treat relations between people—as the thing that gives human life its meaning. The Christmas I was given a watch I did nothing but read fantasies, searching.
My mother liked Japanese novels. I pictured tidy, empty men and women carrying vases across combed pebbles, moving like narrow fish in a pond. But when I read the novels they felt like my real eyes. Here were writers who could see shadows so well, I suspected shadows had written their books for them.
A passage I managed to memorize:
The beauty of the alcove is not the work of some device. An empty space is marked off with plain wood and plain walls, so that the light drawn into it forms dim shadows within emptiness. There is nothing more. And yet, when we give into the darkness that gathers behind the crossbeam, around the flower vase, beneath the shelves, though we know perfectly well it is mere shadow, we are overcome with the feeling that in this small corner of the atmosphere there reigns complete and utter silence; that here in the darkness immutable tranquility holds sway. The ‘mysterious Orient’ of which Westerners speak probably refers to the uncanny silence of these dark places. And even we as children would feel an inexpressible chill as we peered into the depths of an alcove to which the sunlight had not penetrated. Where lies the key to this mystery? Ultimately it is the magic of shadows. Were the shadows to be banished from its corners, the alcove would in that instant revert to mere void.
Recalling that passage become dreadfully important to me at Camp Chad. I thanked myself for having committed it to memory. It was what I went to for comfort; I had been exiled from my home, but they could not keep me from that little passage and my alcove of silence within it. I went there as often as I could to get away from the reality in which I was imprisoned. Because my vision was so poor, that reality’s boundaries always loomed close; often so close they loomed in me.
Something else that brought me some comfort was remembering the manuscript I had been working on before I was arrested. To combat the unbelievable boredom of my situation, I engaged in a very active practice of remembering: as I recalled what I had written, I also revised and extended it. I had no paper or pens; instead I made my marks on images conjured with concentration that took me some time to attain. But the relief my ability to concentrate brought me exceeded by far the effort I had made to develop it.
The manuscript was a treatment of time in the novel, with a focus on one novel in particular that had made a great impression on me, The Fixed Stars. It was by an American, but not one of the usual clumsy ones. My memory-manuscript, which became quite involuted (I was in exile for seven years), had to do with time and its different literary structures, beginning with folklore and ending in the current age in Conn’s novel. In folklore, as well as in many current mystical practices, time is cyclical, with the seasons being the hammer of events. Then there is the vertical, hierarchical structure in Dante’s Inferno; and when social relations become the focus of novels—and as social positions become more fluid, less fixed—hierarchies collapse and we have horizontal temporal structures: linear, mostly, but sometimes the sequence of events might assume the shape of a wave, with many crests, or the shape of an animal’s body.
In The Fixed Stars, my argument went, we see a return of cyclical time, but with a difference: Conn does not permit a full return at the end of each cycle. Instead, each return is slightly displaced, torqued away from its beginning, by some unidentified force that is the hammer of events. A full return is never permitted: although one might glance the time where one began, one can never cross the distance that separates one’s current from one’s former temporal location. The structure that best describes this situation is the helix. It is the structure of modern life, I argued, and it is the structure of exile—one is at every turn prevented from returning to where one began. And so, cut off from our origin even, and especially, by an attempt to return to it, we have our current crisis of identity …
I was taken with my argument. I even gave it the same helical structure Conn gave his novel. This permitted me a pathway by which to return to—or at least to approach a return to—one of my favorite books.
I suppose that, being imprisoned, I was trying to create a new form to live within, the curved one of the helix. It seemed I had decided to become a very different sort of animal and was working out the anatomy of my new body. Night after night I added to it. When it was finished, I could see only vaguely the hard, calcareous shell I had exuded, but I knew it was there because I could touch where it curled around me.
I was happy that I had made a sound structure. I could withdraw inside of it whenever I liked—its chamber was spacious, and, though it was curved, it wasn’t uncomfortable for me: the shape of my body had changed dramatically since I’d been exiled, becoming thin and diminished. Difficult labor, one meager meal, and the fetid conditions in my cabin carried off more of me constantly. Even my bones were thinning. If I died in exile, there would be no remains, not even memories—all of me would have already been exhausted. Death would be merely the last piece being carried away by the wind that was always blowing through the cracks of my cabin.
As soon as I went into my shell, my spirits lifted. I warmed. I felt like a real creature. I was happy just to lie on my back, protected by a surface I imagined looked like pearl. Creatures are always working to keep making themselves while humans, most of them, take it for granted that they’ve already been made.
I wanted to explore my shell a little. At first I wasn’t sure what the best way to move would be, but as soon as I started, I knew the going would be easy. It felt natural, like moving my arm or leg, to go farther in. Only, I never wanted to move faster than very slowly. I’m not sure how long it took me to arrive at the end.
It may have taken many days. I made my way very slowly, winding round and round. I could tell I was getting stronger as I went—it was easier and easier for me to move my body along the pearly walls—though it was a different sort of strength than the strength of men, which was the kind I needed in prison. What would they do with me now? Probably issue me a different ID, stamped with a different stamp, one that condemned me to a different nowhere, to become the same nobody …
I had the thought that the going would never end, but then it did. I was glad because by then I was very tired. And, what luck—the end has turned out to be a wonderful place to rest. It is nothing like where I began—that cabin in that prison. The chamber is wider here. I can even stand up, turn around, walk a few steps in any direction. On the floor is a white silky blanket I curl beneath. My sleep is the deep, dreamless sleep of caverns, not men.
The Fixed Stars, a novel by Brian Conn, was published in English by FC2 in 2009; a French translation was released earlier this year. Evelyn Hampton lives in California. Her first book, Discomfort, will be published later this year by Ellipsis Press. Lispservice.com is her website.